Define and explain Aristotle's conception of plot.
Ch.6 of Aristotle's "Poetics" can be divided into 3 sections:
1. The definition of tragedy.
2. The derivation of the 6 parts of tragedy from the definition.
3. The ranking of the 6 parts in order of importance.
For Aristotle, PLOT is an abstract concept which refers to "the arrangement of the incidents" (Ch.6). The incidents are the raw material and make up the STORY. The way these incidents are structured into a coherent whole is known as the plot. So if the original order and arrangement of the same incidents are altered a new and different plot will result.
A little later in the same chapter, Aristotle asserts that "the first principle, then, and to speak figuratively, the soul of tragedy is the plot; and second in importance is character."
This is because, for Aristotle CHARACTERISATION merely meant adding type characteristics to the dramatic agent: "by character that element in accordance with which we say that agents are of a certain type" (Ch.6).
He reaffirms his critical position by remarking that "poets do not, therefore, create action in order to imitate character; but character is included on account of the action" (Ch.6).
Plot is the most important part of a tragedy for a number of reasons. First, the result of a man's actions determines his success or failure, and hence his happiness, so it is action which is paramount - not character, which doesn't necessarily affect every action. Second, without action, there cannot be a tragedy - but there can be a tragedy without character. Thirdly, diction, song, and thought - even elegantly combined - cannot replicate the action of life without plot.
Plot, then, is the 'soul of a tragedy,' and character comes second. Rounding out his rankings: thought, meaning what a character says in a given circumstance, followed by diction, song, and spectacle.
Aristotle goes on to describe the elements of plot, which include completeness, magnitude, unity, determinate structure, and universality. Completeness refers to the necessity of a tragedy to have a beginning, middle, and end. A 'beginning' is defined as an origin, by which something naturally comes to be. An 'end,' meanwhile, follows another incident by necessity, but has nothing necessarily following it. The 'middle' follows something just as something must follow it.
'Magnitude' refers simply to length -- the tragedy must be of a 'length which can be easily embraced by the memory.' That said, Aristotle believes that the longer a tragedy, the more beautiful it can be, provided it maintains its beginning, middle, and end. And in the sequence of these three acts, the tragedy will present a change 'from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.'
'Unity' refers to the centering of all the plot's action around a common theme or idea.
'Determinate structure' refers to the fact that the plot all hinges on a sequence of causal, imitative events, so if one were to remove even one part of the plot, the entire tragedy 'will be disjointed and disturbed.' More simply, every part of a good plot is necessary.
'Universality' refers to the necessity of a given character to speak or act according to how all or most humans would react in a given situation, 'according to the law of probability or necessity.'
Aristotle ends this discussion of plot elements by pointing his out his particular disdain for 'episodic' plots - plots in which episodes succeed one another 'without probably or necessary sequence' (like a weekly sitcom, for instance). These episodic dramas stretch plot 'beyond their capacity,' and hence are inorganic.